Saturday, 24 October 2009

Book Review: Engels Today

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

A Revolutionary Life: Biography of Friedrich Engels
by John Green
Hardcover: 347 pages, Artery Publications 2008
ISBN 978-0955822803
The Frock-coated Communist:
The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
by Tristram Hunt
Hardcover: 464 pages, Allen Lane 2009
ISBN 978-0713998528

Engels Today
In the last few months two new biographies of Engels have been published by John Green and Tristram Hunt.
Both are serviceable accounts, neither marked by an anti- Marxist approach, and perhaps not adding substantively or significantly to Gustav Mayer’s 1936 biography. I am reviewing the books elsewhere, so here I flag what is rather bad practice to do in a review and look at the books the authors might have written rather than the ones they did.
The biggest challenge to Engels in modern historiography comes from the former New Left Reviewer Gareth
Stedman Jones, who at one stage was himself working on a biography of Engels.
Stedman Jones is an historian whose work always merits serious consideration but in recent times his political conclusions have raised questions for the left. Stedman Jones understands that a number of the ideas of Marx and Engels about the working class, reform and revolution were based on Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, primarily about 1844 Manchester.
If this account can be shown to be rather more than a social survey but with fundamental flaws then it follows that theories based on it must also be open to question. Stedman Jones has made two points. Firstly, that Engels’ framework for understanding Manchester in 1844 was based on the ideas of the ‘true’, or abstract, socialist Hess. This led him to draw as bleak a picture of Manchester as possible in order to emphasise the possibilities and the need for working class liberation from it.
Secondly, that what Engels is writing about is not primarily the rise of new conditions of exploitation that
need to be challenged, but the impact of urban society and cities on people’s lives. This can be challenged too, of course, but that does not represent a specific issue in the relations between labour and capital.
Neither biographer touches on these very important issues and understandably so, since they are engaged in
writing biographies not historiographies. Hunt in his conclusion does emphasise the importance of Engels’
work for understanding modern urban societies such as China but there is no reason to think that he is particularly following a Stedman Jones ‘line’ in doing so. To answer Stedman Jones requires serious historical research. Did Engels exaggerate conditions in Manchester in the 1840s? To an extent this must be a matter of
perception, but we do know that the Chartist leader Harney wrote to Engels in December 1850 noting that
Manchester was a filthy hole and that he would rather be hanged in London than die a natural death in Manchester. Then again, Harney was a Londoner.
In terms of whether Engels misunderstood what he was seeing in Manchester in the 1840s mistaking urban squalor for exploitation Stedman Jones’ key point is that the housing conditions that Engels describes refer to inner Manchester not to the outer areas where the mills were and where mill workers lived. Hence while the dreadful housing can’t be denied it did not impact on the proletariat who were central to matters at the time; they had rather better conditions.
Here Engels himself provided an answer that Stedman Jones does not touch upon. He wrote in The Condition:
I am far from asserting that all London working people live in such want as the foregoing three families. I know very well that ten are somewhat better off, where one is so totally trodden under foot by society…every proletarian, everyone without exception is exposed to a similar fate without any fault of his own.. The working man is constrained to occupy such ruinous dwellings because he cannot pay for others and because
there are no others in the vicinity of his mill; perhaps too because they belong to an employer who engages
him only on condition of his taking such a cottage.
Engels is quite clear. He is not arguing that every worker lives in dreadful conditions but rather that this is the fate of potentially, by chance, anyone. When it comes to mill workers in Manchester he has very obviously seen their poor housing and explained how it came about — it was a condition of employment. That links housing not just to urbanisation but to exploitation as well.
Hopefully historians reading the new biographies of Engels will feel motivated to do some further research into some of the key issues raised here. There is much scope for it.
Keith Flett

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